Republican Governor Chris Christie’s call for an October special election in New Jersey to fill the rest of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s term promises to thrust Newark Mayor Cory Booker into a draining Democratic primary.
In a state where Democrats dominate the legislature and outnumber Republicans by 700,000 voters, Booker’s party is likely to retain the Senate seat. Yet the winner confronts the task of running again in 2014, to win a full six-year term.
Booker, 44, whose drive to rebuild riot-scarred Newark has drawn support from billionaire investors Nicolas Berggruen and Leon Cooperman, said in January he planned to run for the Senate next year. Before he died, Lautenberg, 89, had said he wouldn’t seek a sixth term in 2014. Democratic congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt are among those who have expressed interest in the seat without becoming declared candidates.
“I would expect now that Cory Booker is going to have some company,” Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said by telephone.
The mayor is considered the frontrunner for the seat. A Rhodes scholar and lawyer, Booker rose from the City Council in 2006 to defeat incumbent Sharpe James for the top job in the state’s biggest city by population. He won re-election in 2010.
Booker’s administration has focused on transforming the city of 277,000 residents from crime-ridden survivor of race riots in 1967 to a destination for educated professionals and new corporate citizens. He has lured businesses with fresh construction, low rents and a 20-minute train ride to New York.
In 2010, Republican Christie allied with Booker when Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said he’d donate $100 million to Newark’s struggling, state-run schools. The two again teamed up to modify teacher tenure rules and expand charter educational institutions in the city.
Booker stepped back last year from challenging the governor’s re-election drive, taking aim at Lautenberg’s seat instead. New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case in 1972.
Christie, 50, could have appointed an interim Senator to serve the full 18 months remaining in Lautenberg’s term. He also could have set the special election for Nov. 5, when voters go to the polls to choose a governor and all the members of the state legislature.
The latter course could have put Christie on the ballot with Booker, who has more than 1.3 million followers on the Twitter.com website. Booker also drew national media attention when he rescued a neighbor from a fire last year and after he pitched in with a shovel to help residents clear snow from a 2010 blizzard.
Christie took another option, setting Aug. 13 as the special-election party primary day and Oct. 16 for the final voting. He told reporters in Trenton that politics didn’t enter into his plan and said the truncated campaign will be long enough for an “open and honest” race.
“The decisions that need to be made in Washington are too great to be made by an appointee,” Christie said yesterday. “This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process, and the representation they deserve in Washington.”
Democratic leaders criticized the governor’s decision, faulting it for setting up a costly, unneeded polling date and saying it was politically motivated.
“Taxpayers and citizens want to go to the ballot once,” Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, a Democrat from Union and former state party chief, said yesterday in Edison as the regular primary election wrapped up.
Christie’s move will create “voter fatigue” with four elections in six months, said John Currie, Passaic County’s Democratic chairman. “It complicates things.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, said the move will bombard voters with conflicting messages and advertisements at the height of the gubernatorial campaign. She called it a waste of the $12 million it will cost taxpayers to hold the special election in October.
Raymond Zaccaro, a spokesman for Pallone, and Thomas Seay, a spokesman for Holt, both declined to comment on the congressmen’s plans when contacted by telephone yesterday.
While he hasn’t officially announced a Senate campaign, Booker travels with political aides. He didn’t respond yesterday to a message seeking comment on his plans.
Lautenberg, who was serving his fifth term, died of complications from viral pneumonia. He was the oldest member of the Senate and its last World War II veteran. His funeral will be held today in Manhattan.
Christie plans to appoint an interim replacement by next week, though he wouldn’t say if he’ll pick a Republican, Democrat or independent. He said he’ll leave it to the appointee to decide whether to run in the special election.
New Jersey law gives Christie wide discretion in setting an election date to fill such a post beyond an interim period, according to a ruling by the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. His appointee could have served until the November 2014 general election, according to the memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
While broad, the options presented “no choice that any politician wants,” said Julian Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University.
If Christie had chosen to appoint a Republican for the full 18 months, accusations of favoring his party and boosting his own career would have flown. Putting a Democrat in the post until November 2014 would have given that party the advantage in the election that month, drawing ire from national Republicans.
Opting instead for a quick special election before the culmination of his own campaign also serves the governor, the Princeton, New Jersey, school’s Zelizer said.
“It keeps Cory Booker off the same ballot,” Zelizer said by telephone. “It avoids a national story about Booker versus Christie, in terms of who is more popular.”